James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.
The meaning of the word Samhain comes from Old Irish meaning “summer’s end,” from summer, samh and end, fuin. The modern Irish word for summer is samhradh, and Samhain is still the name for the month of November in Ireland. Celts considered sundown as the start of the day, which is why, though Samhain actually falls on November 1st, it would have been celebrated starting at sundown the night before, on October 31st. It is one of the four main festivals in Celtic tradition, making up the “quarter days,” the days between the equinoxes and solstices.
With Samhain comes a wide variety of supernatural creatures.
The festival of Samhain has many names and is celebrated differently throughout the Celtic lands. Now it is synonymous with the American-born holiday Halloween; with older traditions becoming more modern while others have returned to their roots, and some simply being a part of the modern celebrations.
As most of the legends and aspects come from Ireland, let’s start with Oíche Shamnha, or Night of Samhain, as it is called on the Emerald Isle. On this night, the dead and the Aos Sí, also known as fairies or the Shining Ones, come out from their mounds and visit us from the Otherworld, due to the veil between the worlds being at its thinnest at this time. It is wise to stay indoors on this night, or at the very least to have travel companions, as the hosts of the Aos Sí might kidnap you and take you away to their realms. Families would leave a spot at the table open so their ancestors could join them. In the case of both Otherworld visitors, gifts of food and drink would be left outside the house to appease them, thus quelling any anger or mischief they had in store.
On Samhain, household fires would be extinguished, to be relit from a communal bonfire, in order to cleanse the house and start the year anew. The Hills of Tara and Tlachtga, which are about 12 miles apart from each other, and are located less than 30 miles northwest of Dublin, are particularly associated with this, as locations of fire festivals. Another location linked to Samhain is Oweynagat (“cave of cats”) in County Roscommon, from whence the hosts of the Otherworld spew forth.
Samhain holds importance in many of the Irish myths and the Irish polytheistic religion. The Ulster Cycle mentions Samhain several times. It is the first quarter day discussed by the heroine Emer in the Tochmarc Emire. The later sagas Mesca Ulad and Serglige Con Culainn start at Samhain.
The Irish hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill protects Tara from the god Aillen at Samhain. The Dagda, the Irish All-Father, has an affair with The Morrígan at Samhain (the Irish goddess of battle and strife) to ensure his victory in battle. The Morrígan is associated with Samhain on her own; as she rides out of the Sídhe of Cruachan on this night in a chariot, pulled by A One-legged Horse! Darker connections occur with Donn, a Celtic god of the dead, and with Crom Cruaich, a deity with connections to ritual slaughter.
Scotland has the most in common with Ireland’s festival, with even the name Oidhche Shamhna being very similar. This is natural, as they are both Goidelic Gaelic languages.
Samhain’s pagan traditions are still strong in Scotland, with games of divination still being played, as divination is most effective when the veil is thin.
Robert Burns, the best-known poet of Scotland, wrote the poem “Halloween,” containing many references to pagan practices which continued as Scottish Halloween traditions well into his time. For example, young women would peel apples and see what initial the peeling formed, as that would tell you the first letter of the name of your future husband. Or, engaged or newlywed couples would each put nuts, often hazelnuts, beside each other in the fire and whether the nuts stayed together in the flames or moved apart would be an indicator of the couple’s future happiness. However, the nuts might hiss and spit at each other.
A more recent tradition in Scotland is the seasonal eating of pork pies or sausage rolls. Due to the Witchcraft Act of 1735, it was illegal to eat pork, so when that act was ended in the 1950s, these dishes became very popular again for Halloween in Scotland.
In Gaelic lore, and especially in Scotland, the Cailleach is the divine hag who represents the winter with her seasonal rule starting on Samhain and lasting until the first of the summer on Bealtainn. The west coast of Scotland has her washing her great plaid for three days in a giant coastal whirlpool, which ends with the land being blanketed in snow.
In Wales this day is called Nos Calan Gaeaf. The name is derived from the Latin term for the first day of the month (calends) and the Welsh term for winter. It was one of the Ysbrydnos, the days when spirits walked abroad, with the other being Bealtainn. One particular form of traditional divination was families placing stones around a fire with each of their names on them. If someone’s stone was missing in the morning, that person could plan on dying that year. In Welsh lore, a spirit called Yr Hwch Ddu Gwta takes the form of a black sow and roams the countryside with a headless woman at this time.
On the Isle of Man, Hop-tu-Naa is celebrated. As in other Celtic lands, jack-o-lanterns are carved out of turnips, called swedes by the Manx. Divination was also used at Nop-tuNaa, in that families would scatter ashes at the door. The direction of the first footprint would determine whether the household in the coming year would see a death, if the footprint is facing away from the house, or a birth, if the footprint is facing towards the house. The future could also be conjured in prophetic dreams by stealing a neighbor’s salt herring and eating it before going to bed. It makes one wonder who was foolish enough to leave their salt herring on display this night!
The Celts and their druids did not leave many written records but rather used an oral tradition that entailed decades of training. Because of that, and of the Romans’ ability to culturally ensnare those they’ve conquered or accepted, there are no extant records of any rituals, let alone Samhain rituals. Fortunately, that does not stop modern people from celebrating the festival with their own rituals. Celtic Reconstructionists, Neopagans, and Wiccans all have their own styles for creating rituals, and for Samhain this typically involves an acknowledgement that the summer is ending and the new year is beginning, as it grows ever darker. From that point the rituals, and their “creatures,” can diverge greatly in style, even within the same religion.
© 2015 James Slaven